Cover Feature

I Don’t Read Minds, I Read People: How Oz Pearlman Caught The Magic Bug

Photo courtesy of Tim Joyce Photography on behalf of International Franchise Association

As I sat down for lunch across from the man considered by many to be the greatest mentalist in the world, the thought suddenly struck me… does he know what I’m thinking right now? Our waiter approached and Oz Pearlman nonchalantly looked down at the menu, then over to me and asked, “Are you ready to order?” to which I replied, “Not quite yet, let’s chat for a bit first.”

So, what is mentalism anyway? Is it some sort of superpower, psychic ability masquerading as science or run-of-the-mill sleight of hand? According to Pearlman, it is a skill, and just like any other skill, it can be learned, practiced and in turn perfected over many years given the right level of dedication. Yet innate talent plays a huge role in determining the heights you might reach as a performer, in the same way being 6’8’’ isn’t a requirement, but certainly helps one become a good basketball player. Almost all mentalists start out initially as magicians; he told me to think of it like taking pre-med courses prior to getting your doctorate and then eventually becoming a specialist.

The initial spark took place when Pearlman was 13, catching the “magic bug” as he puts it, while on a cruise ship with his family. That chance encounter helped define the rest of his life, as it so often does for people when viewed in hindsight. A magician picked him out of the crowd to assist with a trick known as the sponge balls. Pearlman looked down in shock and awe as little red balls appeared, disappeared and multiplied in his own hands and an obsession instantly took hold. Once back home in Michigan, he checked out every book in the library related to magic, consuming them cover-to-cover. Next up were the tricks of the trade…literally. You need to find magic stores that offer up elaborate decks of cards, gimmicks both colorful and invisible, and a variety of other gadgetry only available within this secret society.

Pearlman was born in Israel and moved to the USA at age 3, with parents who instilled in him a strong work ethic, the result of living in a young country with compulsory military service. To ensure this was not simply a passing phase, Pearlman’s mom said that moving forward he would need to earn the money he required to buy more tricks and books himself, which got the entrepreneurial juices flowing. He walked to the nearest fine dining restaurant and managed to sweet-talk the manager into hiring him to perform for their patrons weekly on their slowest night. Going table to table with close-up magic, Pearlman learned the ropes of how to disarm and entertain a crowd. The natural jump was then to perform at kids’ birthday parties, bar/bat mitzvahs and eventually corporate events; ultimately paying his way through college at the University of Michigan with this side hustle. Having earned a B.S. in engineering, he followed the traditional path of working a corporate nine to five, moving to New York City and working for Merrill Lynch. This paid the bills but didn’t seem to satisfy his soul, so he continued performing on the side and slowly but surely building a reputation and name for himself in the big city. Weeks turned into months and months turned into years when a sign from the universe came to Pearlman in the form of an off-handed joke from the CFO of his company. He had been hired to entertain senior leadership of Merrill Lynch and all assumed he was a professional performer. At one point after turning five dollars into five one-hundred-dollar bills, James Gorman who is this? exclaimed, “We need to get you working here mate,” to which Oz replied, “I actually do work here, sir.” Immediately James said, “What are you doing working here?” That question cut to the core of Pearlman’s psyche, and he asked himself truly, and deeply, “What am I doing working here?” A few weeks later he put in his notice and decided to chase his dream.

The old adage that it takes ten years to become an overnight success proved true, almost to the day. A decade after leaving his job on Wall Street, Pearlman had a huge break when his audition on “America’s Got Talent” aired. He captivated the nation week after week with never-before-seen mind-reading stunts and won over not only the judges, but also the entire country, eventually finishing in third place out of thousands of acts. This was the jet fuel needed to propel his career to new heights and become a mainstay on television, appearing on “The Today Show” over 20 times and then all the daytime talk shows.

In 2018, Pearlman joined a very elite and exclusive club, including the likes of David Copperfield and David Blaine, to have their own network TV special. “Oz Knows” aired nationally on NBC to rave reviews and later that year it won him an Emmy Award.

As Pearlman continued to build a name for himself as a mentalist, his other passion for running long distances started to take center stage and almost eclipsed his professional acclaim. He has always believed strongly in giving back to others and felt compelled to act when the war in Ukraine started. Pearlman decided to raise funds and awareness for Save the Children’s Ukraine Fund by trying to break the record for most loops ever run around Central Park in a day. On April 8, 2022, he embarked on this challenge, running 6.1-mile laps around the park repeatedly. Oz shattered the pre-existing record and ended up running 116 miles in just over 18 hours while raising over $116,000 for charity.

The story caught the public’s imagination and made its way around the globe, as it was featured on the front cover of the “New York Times,” the second page of the “Wall Street Journal,” along with “Reuters,” “Runner’s World” and numerous other global publications. The excitement continued when Pearlman broke yet another record on August 4, the single hottest day of the summer. This time he ran 130 blistering miles from Montauk to Manhattan in 21 hours, thus becoming the fastest person ever to traverse Long Island on foot. The focus required for getting inside other people’s heads during his “day job” served as a secret weapon for getting inside his own mind to achieve seemingly superhuman feats. When asked what’s next on his busy calendar, Pearlman says he is only getting started and plans to keep pushing the limits both physically and mentally.

The waiter seemed to materialize out of nowhere, again asking if we were ready to order. I’d been completely engrossed in our conversation, so a frantic assessment of the menu was suddenly underway, my eyes jumping from item to item. My right hand scratched my chin nervously and my brows lightly furrowed as I prepared to speak. Pearlman interrupted with a knowing smile and all too casually said, “I know you’re torn between the chicken club and salmon but trust your heart and go with the French dip.” He was right, and at that moment, I had officially become a believer.